FOR STARTERS, LET’S CUT THROUGH all the official and semi-official pre-sell stuff about Last Tango in Paris, ranging from orgasmic cineastic euphoria after its October 14 New York Film Festival showing (non-euphoric reactions don’t get reprinted in the ads) to cover stories (it’s post-Inauguration dulltime on the national and international scenes) to smarmy witties on the Johnny Carson show (where sodomy is still one of the taboo topics—at the moment).
We are not facing an ultimate cultural milestone: Le Sacre du Printemps or even Nude Descending a Staircase this is not. Nor is it a moral milestone. The year, need we note, is 1973, ten years since we thought La Dolce Vita a bit racy and The Silence “dirty”; I Am Curious (Yellow), with its simulations has come and long gone and Deep Throat, with its actualities is upon us. To each his own erotica and shock threshhold. It would be a pity—more specifically, an insult to this new Bernardo Bertolucci film and a disappointment to the thrill-seeker—if those who haven’t worked up the courage to go to one of the hard-core movies plan to get their kicks the respectable way by going to see Last Tango. For the newest Marlon Brando film is a highly personal work by him and by the 31-year-old film-maker whose talents have become more and more apparent, his artistry more and more mature with Before the Revolution, Spider’s Strategem and The Conformist.
It is, however, a strong film in its sexual depictions. Not, mind you, that you’re going to see the “real” thing as in Schoolgirl or Mona or Throat, although indeed Brando and Maria Schneider create the illusion. And although the Brando backside is bared, the privacy of his public parts is sustained even at the sacrifice of truth, in that great male-chauvinist tradition that of course presents us with all of Miss Schneider that there is to see. Where new sexual ground is broken in the “respectable” film, however, is in the simulation of sodomy and anal stimulation, both in sado-masochistic terms, and in the spewing of language more usually associated with the viscera and with more esoteric sexual practices.
The foregoing is part warning, part preparation, for it is not what Last Tango is all about. If you cannot accept this sort of content, however, you can thereafter reduce this film to simply a depiction of everyman’s (and undoubtedly some woman’s) erotic fantasy. A brooding expatriate American and a feckless Parisienne of twenty meet in a vacant apartment; their attraction is instant, their sexual encounter overwhelming. The man moves in minimal furniture, including a large mattress, establishes the rule of no names and no self-identity, and they meet regularly, the girl